When coronavirus hit, ASL Group quickly turned its talents to moving essential personnel and supplies, and repatriating those stranded abroad. But, as ASL Group Safety Manager and pilot Maxime Wauters explains, the group still has a keen eye on the future
Based in Belgium and the Netherlands, ASL Group operates a fleet of more than 40 business jets across its ASL Private Jet Services and JetNetherlands brands, plus single examples of the ERJ135 and ERJ145 with ACE, its corporate airline, which are now also offered under the ASL Fly Executive banner. Like so many industry stalwarts, as its regular flying declined with the spread of coronavirus, so ASL began applying its expertise to new, often life-saving missions.
Maxime Wauters, ASL Group Safety Manager and pilot explains: “During March and April we operated repatriation and other ‘essential’ flights, including medical missions and moving healthcare personnel, to 116 cities in 34 countries, carrying more than 1,200 passengers. We’ve flown to Florida, New York, Norway, Turkey, South Africa, Morocco and many other locations.”
Fast expanding and forward leaning, the ASL Group regularly adds new aircraft to its portfolio and Wauters says other growth plans are continuing as far as lockdown allows. “We still have big plans for the future and we’re working really hard on our ‘pre-COVID’ projects while preparing for the restart of ‘normal’ operations ‘post-COVID’, although timings are very uncertain. We know the effects of the crisis will be felt for a very long time and it will take months, if not years, for the global economy to recover. But we are confident that business aviation will bounce back fast and strong.
“We’re expecting a couple of new aircraft to join the fleet and we’ve started construction on a hangar and general aviation terminal at Liege. We’re also working on a very important sustainability and ecology project.”
But the recent focus has been on combating coronavirus, moving medical supplies and personnel, and repatriating citizens stranded abroad. Demonstrating the versatility and can-do attitude that typifies business aviation, the ASL team even turned its hand to chartering freighters.
“If our clients need something we don’t have, we find it. One of our shareholders had contacts in China and our team used their expertise in rapid problem solving to charter four Boeing 747 freighter flights and import millions of masks and other medical supplies to Liege,” Wauters reveals.
Meanwhile, he describes repatriation flying as ‘quite challenging’. Crew and passenger safety inevitably comes first. “Even before the pandemic was declared, we started taking proactive measures to protect our crew, staff, clients and passengers, ensuring the highest levels of safety and hygiene. Safety is always our most important commitment, but we immediately began implementing additional cabin cleaning and disinfection measures, initially based on EASA recommendations and subsequently on directives.
“We also adapted our operations to include only one-way flights and short turnarounds, we began avoiding night stops in affected areas and equipping all our aircraft with disinfection products and universal precaution kits, hydroalcoholic solutions, masks, gloves and so on. And then, as well as the EASA directives, we have been strictly following all the recommendations from governments, health institutions and other authorities. Our office personnel are working from home and those who have to work on site – including ground ops and maintenance staff, and crew members – are following all the social distancing, handwashing and other recommendations.”
Yet safety has not been the major challenge. “Most of our repatriation flights come in as last-minute requests from direct clients, governments, official agencies, embassies or brokers. The biggest challenge is to ensure each flight can be completed. Countries have implemented a wide and varied range of confinement measures, in a somewhat haphazard way, and sometimes these aren’t clearly communicated, making our planning very complex.”
Repatriation flights are one-way by nature; in simple terms, that means around half ASL’s recent flying has been empty. “So we decided to offer these flights to medical staff, NGOs, government officials and diplomats directly involved in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak,” Wauters says. “All empty leg flights are posted on our website, communicated through platforms including Avinode, and to our most important brokers.
“One of our more significant flights was at the beginning of the pandemic, when we moved a team of nurses from the UK to Gibraltar to support hospitals coming under pressure from the outbreak.” By mid-April, however, the pace of repatriation flying had slowed and ASL’s operation was reducing as a consequence.
“It’s difficult to know what to expect, since there is so much uncertainty. We don’t know when or how the market will develop or when borders will completely reopen. We also have no idea how long some level of restriction will remain in place, or when airports and airspace will become fully operational again. And, because every country is managing its crisis response differently, with little or no international coordination, it’s difficult to say even when we’ll be able to begin limited operations.”
Yet Wauters remains confident for the future.
“We believe that owing to the nature of our business and our industry, which are based on reactivity and flexibility, we’ll be ready to operate fully again almost immediately, unlike our friends in the airline sector. We might even see a surge in demand for private jets, both from ‘new’ customers looking for more privacy and less potential exposure to crowds, at least for as long as the virus is still a serious concern, and primarily business customers, who really need to travel but can’t use the airlines yet because of their slow restart. At ASL, we are making sure that as restrictions are lifted, even gradually, we’ll immediately be ready to serve our clients again.”